Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.
It’s one of the world’s smallest nations but landlocked Liechtenstein packs it in—and one of the best ways to experience it is along the border-to-border Liechtenstein Trail. JoAnna Haugen is one of the first 30 people to hike it.
“What can you tell us about this bridge?” My dad points to a wooden bridge crossing the Rhine River, then angles his camera to snap a photo of it, with the Appenzell Alps in the background.
My husband thumbs through his smartphone, then explains we’re looking at the Vaduz-Sevelen bridge. Built in 1871, this covered structure is the only remaining wooden bridge between Liechtenstein and Switzerland. We admire the bridge, comment on the river flow. My husband tucks his phone in his pocket, my dad takes a few more photos, then we turn our backs on the Vaduz-Sevelen bridge and begin walking.
It is Tuesday morning on the third leg of our walk across Liechtenstein, and we have lots of facts—and lots of walking—ahead of us.
Tucked between Switzerland and Austria, this double-landlocked country—it’s entirely surrounded by other landlocked countries and the only other is Uzbekistan—is easy to overlook. At just over 160 square kilometers, Liechtenstein can be traversed by car in about half an hour. And without an established train station, it’s hard to reach—by European standards, at least.
Most travelers make a day trip from Munich, Germany, or Zurich, Switzerland, and their visit centers largely on the museums and old town in Vaduz, the country’s capital city.
While Vaduz is worthy of a trip, these fly-by visitors, who rarely stay more than a few hours, never know the country’s complicated history and culture, which was largely determined by its geographical location. They never learn that the country’s first telephone line in 1887 connected two textile factories or that, after 200 years without any wolves living in Liechtenstein, a single wolf was caught on camera in late 2018, proving reintroduction efforts in the Alpine region are working. And they may not know that in 1719, the Principality of Liechtenstein was formed, and the country just celebrated its 300th anniversary.
And what better way to celebrate than to open a border-to-border walking trail?
Arriving in Vaduz on our first day, we stop at the visitor center to ask about trail markers (visible and obvious), trail conditions (varied with easy to moderate walking), and the weather forecast (favorable for our October walk). “Come back when you finish,” the tourism rep calls after us, waving as we walked out the door.
The 75-kilometer Liechtenstein Trail winds through all 11 of the country’s municipalities—with a bonus section in the ski resort village of Malbun—and can be comfortably walked in five or six days. Enhancing the experience, the LIstory app introduces travelers to interesting historical, cultural, and demographic details via no less than 147 GPS-supported points of interest along the way.
Across the world, long-distance hikes lure travelers who want to get off the beaten path. Trail tourism encourages travelers to slow down, tread lightly, encounter unexpected local experiences …
On Sunday morning—our first day on the trail—my dad, my husband, and I ride the public bus to the stop closest to our starting point in Balzers. We walk roadside until we find the Liechtenstein-Switzerland border, marked by a stone, a sign, and a flag. My husband struggles with our cell service, trying to get the GPS to sync up and unlock our first point of interest. Failing that, we take a few photos, find the blue-and-red trail marker, and begin to walk.
The path leads us through the clearing, past the old settlement of Mäls, and toward Gutenburg Castle, where the GPS finally kicks in and we unlock our first stop. For over 800 years, the castle had strategic military importance, but today the courtyard is used for cultural events—and on a Sunday morning, it’s ideal for a bird’s eye view of the small towns we’ll pass through. The sun breaks over the mountain ridge and floods the Rhine Valley. The smell of freshly cut grass permeates the air. Hollow cow bells echo across the countryside.
We continue walking toward Triesen, past classic mountain village homes with wooden shingles and flower boxes overflowing with blooms. Leading out of Triesen, the trail heads up a rugged, steep path to Triesenburg, where we complete our first day of hiking by mid-afternoon.
Though geographically small, the country’s topography is incredibly varied—and the Liechtenstein Trail hits it all. It crosses farmland and protected wetlands, and winds along sidewalks through small towns and forests in the mountains. Along the way, we greet locals out walking their dogs with a nod and “hoi!” We watch from a distance as they mow their precariously steep lawns and herd cattle.
We are the 29th, 30th, and 31st people to walk the Liechtenstein Trail. It’s not a long walk or a strenuous one, but the moment feels monumental nonetheless.
We relish these completely mundane moments, metaphorically far from any day tourists spilling off tour buses in the city center. And we’re not alone: Across the world, long-distance hikes lure travelers who want to get off the beaten path. Trail tourism encourages travelers to slow down, tread lightly, encounter unexpected local experiences, and disperse economic support across a destination for a longer period of time.
On this trail, we’re as good as alone, and we take full advantage. We examine the contents of a Little Free Library the size of a vending machine, and snack on pears plucked from a wooden box of free fruit set out for passers-by. We come across dozens of rainbow-colored beehives and butterfly houses, and we spend half an hour ogling a field of baby sheep.
According to the LIstory app, nearly half of Liechtenstein’s residents belong to sports clubs; my husband practises his athletic prowess on a slackline in one of the country’s exquisitely maintained public parks. Using augmented reality on the app, we ‘visit’ the Vaduz Castle where the Prince lives—it’s the only way to get inside as it’s not open to the public.
In the woods outside Vaduz, we learn about Liechtenstein’s Scout movement, the largest youth organization in the country today, and my dad follows up with stories of attending the Jamboree as a teen.
Walking through the Sportpark Eschen-Mauren, we happen upon an altar with a crucifix erected in 1985 for a visit by Pope John Paul II beside the soccer pitch; Liechtenstein declared the Nativity of the Virgin Mary an official state holiday to mark the visit.
Half a kilometer beyond the Prince of Liechtenstein Winery, we encounter a bottle of home-brewed schnapps and a couple of shot glasses for sampling. The homeowner walks out the door as my dad and husband sip the sweet liquor and asks what we think. I muster up my jumbled German language skills to tell him it’s sehr gut. A couple days’ worth of practice and I order croissants at a bakery in Mauren with minimal difficulty.
Five days and 75 kilometers later, the three of us walk down a road in Schaanwald and reach the Austrian border and the end of the trail.
Keeping our promise, we stop back by the visitor center, where the same friendly rep is sitting behind the counter. They were expecting us, she says, handing us water bottles and lanyards to mark our achievement.
She fills out certificates: We are the 29th, 30th, and 31st people to walk the Liechtenstein Trail. It’s not a long walk or a strenuous one, but the moment feels monumental nonetheless. After all, we just finished walking across a country.
JoAnna Haugen is a writer, public speaker, and founder of Rooted, a storytelling platform at the intersection of sustainable travel, environmental conservation, and community-based advocacy efforts. A returned Peace Corps volunteer, international election observer, and intrepid traveler, JoAnna currently lives in Kyiv, Ukraine.